Why did Esther insist that the Jews fast for three days?
Years earlier, impoverished through his own irresponsibility, Haman had been forced to sell himself as a slave to Mordechai for a loaf of bread. Now, after securing his position as viceroy to the king, Haman sought revenge for his humiliation and renewed the ancient grudge of his people, Amalek, against the Jews. He first decreed that everyone who passed by had to bow down before him, and then attached an engraved idol upon his breast so that, by bowing down to Haman, the Jews would bow also before his idol.
Mordechai refused to bow. This infuriated Haman, who now sought revenge for his humiliation. Nursing his anger, Haman approached the king with a plan to exterminate the Jews, not through a state-sponsored campaign of violence but by degrading their status throughout the entire kingdom. When Achashverosh's subjects around the world would learn that the Jews had been declared nonentities, and that the gentiles throughout the empire could kill them and seize their property with impunity, Haman's "Jewish problem" would take care of itself.
Despite Achashverosh's certainty that he had avoided Belshazzar's error in calculating the seventy years, the specter of a Jewish people that always emerged victorious continued to haunt him. Fearful that, somehow, the Jews might yet threaten his rule, he accepted Haman's proposal and issued his decree. The proclamation was announced in the capital city of Shushan on the thirteenth day of the month of Nisan 3404, and dispatched throughout the kingdom: on the thirteenth of Adar, eleven months hence, the Persian government would no longer recognize any Jew's right to property, right to justice, or right to life.
The many Jews who had considered Mordechai's refusal to bow to Haman a needless provocation now felt themselves vindicated. But Mordechai's reaction to the crisis stunned them: Instead of conceding his guilt, Mordechai insisted that it was the people's attendance at Achashverosh's party nine years earlier that now endangered their lives. That two apparently unrelated events, so distant in time, could be so integrally connected posed no problem for Mordechai. It had been sixty-six years since the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, and the last chance for the fulfillment of Yirmiyahu's prophesy was drawing near. Mordechai entertained no doubt that Hashem had created this crisis to allow the Jews a final opportunity to earn their redemption.
It was equally clear to Mordechai that Hashem had placed Esther in the king's palace for precisely this contingency. Through Esther's chamberlain (none other than Daniel, who had been demoted after Achashverosh rose to power), Mordechai sent instructions that she must go to the king immediately and plead for the annulment of his decree.
Esther readily agreed to go before the king, but she argued that it was wiser to wait for the king to summon her. By royal decree, anyone who came into the king's presence incurred the death penalty automatically if the king did not find favor with him. Since Achashverosh had ordered the execution of his previous wife in a fit of anger, Esther's concern was very real.
Furthermore, since the king had not summoned Esther in the last thirty days, it seemed likely that either he was displeased with her or would call for her very shortly. Since the decree to kill the Jews was eleven months away, and since Esther's appeal for mercy should find the king in a receptive mood to have the greatest chance of acceptance, surely it made more sense for Esther to wait.
Mordechai's response was fierce. Was it not self-evident, he demanded, that Hashem had positioned Esther for this very moment? By refusing to seize the moment and capitalize upon Hashem's providence, Esther would risk forfeiting altogether the opportunity to do His will. Moreover, the threat of annihilation had driven the Jews, finally, to a collective national repentance. only the merit of such a teshuvah could save the Jews, and any delay might allow the people to slip back into complacency or hopelessness.
Yet on the surface, Mordechai's rebuke seemed more like a pardon than a demand: "Don't imagine that you will escape the fate of the Jews in the house of the king," he told Esther. "If you fail to seize the moment now, salvation will come from elsewhere, and you and your father's house will be lost" (Esther 4:13–14).
How was this argument designed to convince Esther to go before the king? If salvation would come from elsewhere, why should Esther put herself at risk? And if Hashem would, in any case, save the Jews, why would Esther be in danger at all?
Mordechai understood that Hashem, having promised the patriarchs that their descendants would become an eternal nation, would never allow the Jewish people to be destroyed. The threat facing the Jews could be nothing more than a warning intended to shake the Jews back into awareness of their transgressions and their potential greatness.
In fact, the root of the Jewish people's troubles began neither with their attendance at Achashverosh's party nor with their bowing down before Haman. It began all the way back at Sinai when they received the Torah.
At that time, the Sages tell us, Hashem held the mountain over their heads and declared, "Accept the Torah now, or you will be buried here." The Sages never intended these words to be interpreted literally. Rather, from their allegorical imagery we understand not that Hashem coerced the people to accept the Torah, but that the revelation they collectively experienced rendered their decision to accept the Torah as unambiguous as a choice between life and death. And so they declared with one voice, "na'aseh v'nishma — we will do and we will hear!" (Shemos 24:7). So absolute was their trust in Hashem that they committed themselves to observe His will without hesitation, knowing that the Almighty would require nothing from them that was beyond their ability.
The Jews knew they were committing themselves to a code of law. What they did not count on was the aspect of the law that is unique to Torah: the oral Tradition.
Because the Torah would have to survive thousands of years, hundreds of generations, and dispersion among countless gentile cultures, the system of transmission and observance required a certain intrinsic fluidity and flexibility that would allow the Torah to adapt to new circumstances and situations without compromising its integrity. The oral Torah provides that flexibility, enabling both the Law and the Jews to respond to a changing world with changing sensibilities and technologies. The Written Torah simultaneously anchors the Law so that it cannot mutate from its original form. Combined into a single, integrated system, the Written Torah and the oral Torah together enable the Jews to "change enough to stay the same."
When the Jews discovered that they had committed themselves not only to written statutes and observances but to an oral code, the application of which would change over time subject to the interpretation and implementation of rabbinic authority, their resolve faltered. Yes, they had accepted this yoke upon themselves willingly. But their half-hearted acceptance of this critical component of Hashem's Torah revealed the people's lack of emunas Chachamim, trust in the Sages, which prevented the complete and secure establishment of a Torah society.
For 956 years, this imperfection had resided in the heart of the Jewish nation. It accounted for the Jews' failure to request a king during the 380 years of the Shoftim, for the civil war that divided the kingdom, for the persistent influence of avodah zarah throughout Jewish society, for the ultimate destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, and for the threat of extermination that faced the Jews in the days of Mordechai and Esther.
Faced with extinction at the hands of Haman and Achashverosh, the Jewish people finally came to terms with the necessity of rabbinic guidance and fully accepted the Torah in the form Hashem intended. For this reason does Scripture employ the phrase, "kimu v'kiblu — they established and they accepted," echoing the seeming transposition of na'aseh v'nishma. only then, in Persia, did the Jews fully establish that which they had merely accepted nearly a thousand years before at Sinai.
Esther had many good reasons to question Mordechai's instruction that she go before Achashverosh immediately. But Mordechai demonstrated that there were factors beyond superficial cause and effect. By resisting Mordechai in his capacity as leader of the Jewish people, Esther would in effect be duplicating the error that had brought the Jews so near to annihilation.
Esther accepted Mordechai's rebuke, but she insisted that the Jews fast for three days before she went in to see the king. Since the fast would begin that very day, the thirteenth of Nisan, it would continue through the festival of Pesach, a day when fasting is halachically forbidden and when we are required to fulfill the commandment of eating matzah. In essence, Esther had deflected Mordechai's demand and redirected it against the Jewish people as a whole.
As we have explained, the present crisis stemmed from the Jews' failure to trust Mordechai when they disregarded his prohibi tion against attending Achashverosh's party and blamed him for not bowing down to Haman. In their minds, refusing a royal decree was the equivalent of committing suicide by arousing the ire of the king. They had favored their own judgment over the judgment of their ruling sage, and it had been those decisions that had placed their lives in danger.
Esther understood that it was not in her power to save the Jews. Rather, it was up to the Jews to save themselves by correcting the flaw in their own character that had led to this crisis. By ordering them to fast during the Pesach holiday, would they once again follow their own judgment, or would they listen this time in spite of the apparent illogic of Mordechai's directive?
The Jews could easily have dismissed Mordechai's counsel. He could neither prove that their attendance at the party had produced their current dilemma nor offer evidence that annulling the proper observance of Pesach would result in their redemption. The Torah, however, imbues the Sages with absolute authority, granting them the power even to suspend Torah law in extraordinary circumstances. By invoking the authority of hora'as sha'ah, an emergency decree, Mordechai placed the people again in a test of their loyalty to the Sages, a test very much like the one they had failed nine years earlier.
This time the Jews listened. The people fasted, Esther made her case before the king and Haman was hanged the next day on the gallows he had built for Mordechai.
The salvation of the Jews resulted from a long string of apparent coincidences. Achashverosh's plan to strip power from the nobility led to the party, which led to the execution of Vashti, which led, against all odds, to the selection of Esther as queen, which led to Mordechai's promotion as the king's advisor, which positioned him to overhear a plot to assassinate the king, which later was discovered in the royal book of records by a sleepless king, which subsequently led the king to suspect the loyalty of Haman, which compelled him to act swiftly on Esther's denunciation, execute his most trusted advisor and reverse the decree against the Jews.
The story of Purim is Jewish history's most compelling example of hashgachah pratis, the Divine providence by which Hashem guides events while neither revealing Himself openly nor interfering with mankind's free will. The Book of Esther alludes to Hashem's hiddenness by never mentioning His name, yet His hand is clearly evident in the string of unlikely events and apparent coincidences that culminated in the Jews' salvation.
To look for Hashem when He is not clearly present, and to trust the insight of those better able to strip away the physical mask that conceals spiritual reality, are the true keys to salvation and redemption.